Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Nothing like a list of unconnected reading notes to start off the week…

My Central and South American reading project is in full swing. I moved from Mexico down to Guatemala and finished Francisco Goldman’s extraordinary novel The Divine Husband. I am uncharacteristically speechless about this book. I strongly suspect that a thorough working knowledge of Don Quixote would have helped render this novel less unwieldy for me. Well, unwieldy is maybe the wrong word. The experience of reading The Divine Husband was wonderful; the book is quirky and outlandish and has a sly narrator and eccentric, memorable characters, but it is an oversized book. And I mean oversized in many ways…it is very long, with numerous tangential stories and lots of seemingly irrelevant detail (all of which is either funny or mysterious or engaging). There is so much going on this novel, within the story itself, but it also includes heaps of intertextual references to other great works of literature. Definitely a book to read a few times in order to break it down and work out its many themes and allusions.

And then I went to Belize with a collection of short stories called Pataki Full by Colville Young. It may have been because I read these simple stories right after finishing The Divine Husband but I wasn’t able to drum up any real affection for the writing or the subject. They did give me a straightforward picture of some of the issues of life in Belize, but without drawing me in, without casting a spell.

Next up is a book from El Salvador called Luisa in Realityland by Claribel Alegria and I cannot wait.

For my French book club I am reading Romain Gary’s memoir La Promesse de l’Aube. For those of you who might not know Gary, he is the only person to have won the Prix Goncourt twice. He won it twice because after winning it the first time in 1956 he began publishing under an alias (while still publishing as Romain Gary) and was awarded the prize a second time in 1975. It was only discovered upon his death in 1980 that he was actually Emile Ajar as well.

La Promesse de l’Aube (published in English as Promise at Dawn) is a beautiful book about Gary’s childhood, and mostly about his relationship with his mother. Gary was raised by a formidable woman who loved him fiercely. He writes how incredibly suffocating her love was but also how inspiring. She would not have accepted anything but fame and glory from her son and it’s clear that Gary suffered, especially as a young child, from her excess of maternal affection. At the same time Gary openly admires her resourcefulness and her unwavering devotion in the face of his common failures. The book is written with more humor than frustration and ranks as one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. (I feel so bold saying that about a second novel in less than a week!)

Also, I’m reading another Iris Murdoch novel – The Nice and the Good. I made some stylistic comparisons between Murdoch and Nadine Gordimer the other day, which I find hold up in this second Murdoch novel, but I did want to say that despite their similarities, there is always the political or social dimension in Gordimer’s work and of course Murdoch doesn’t have this. I don’t say this as a criticism of Murdoch but only as a statement about where their work has very little common ground. I get the sense that Murdoch was intensely preoccupied with relationships and ethical questions as they relate to love and sexuality.

Finally, and this is very silly, but I read Johanna Spyri’s Heidi for the first time last week and it made me wonder where on earth we get this image of a blonde Heidi? In the book, Heidi has short, dark, curly hair. I was so surprised by this I actually had to run downstairs to my refrigerator and take out the bottle of Heidi brand milk to look at the picture, which in my mind had a little blonde girl drinking from a bowl of milk. But no! She has short dark hair. Which is when I realized that it must be the Swiss Miss hot cocoa label from my childhood that did all the damage…


15 Responses to “monday reading notes”

  1. adevotedreader

    The Divine Husband sounds intriguing (if unwieldy) so I will look out for it.

    No apology necessary for reading Heidi- as a child I longed to live on the heights with the goats, Peter and nunky and it’s still a favourite comfort read.

  2. Stefanie

    Your Central and South America project books sound so interesting. I am intrigued by The Divine Husband even if it is unwieldy.

    My image of Heidi is of a girl with blond braids too. that Swiss Miss packaging is nefarious!

  3. Biblibio

    This Central-to-South American project sounds completely fascinating and like a great way to widen reading world.

    “Luisa in Realityland”… what a great title…

  4. ds

    *sigh* Yet more books to add to the list, courtesy of your wonderfully eclectic habits! I think you are right about Gordimer’s political streak not being present in Murdoch’s novels–she was definitely of a philosophical bent–though it would be interesting to note what she might have been had she been the South African…
    I loved Heidi…

  5. litlove

    I love Romain Gary’s work. I am writing about his novel Les Enchanteurs in my academic work at present and must read this memoir. What great reading you have been doing, all while managing the early days of your baby – I’m in awe! 🙂

  6. polyreader

    I’m with litlove on being in awe! I barely have time to tie my shoes these days, and I have no kids!

    In France there was a Heidi cartoon (a Japanese cartoon, of course), she had cropped dark hair… And I still misremembered her as blond, with no Swiss Mist excuse!

  7. Dorothy W.

    What a wonderful bunch of books you’ve been reading! And I’ve heard of so few of them. The Divine Husband sounds really great — any book that asks for a working knowledge of Don Quixote is going to get me interested! 🙂

  8. verbivore

    devoted reader – I am glad I’ve finally read Heidi, especially since I live in Switzerland and it was a lovely children’s book. There were a lot of stories originally, but only the first became famous world wide. It would be fun to find the others.

    Stefanie – I am really enjoying the Central and South American project so far, so many authors I’ve never read !

    Biblibio – I know, isn’t that a great title! I am hoping to get started on that book this weekend.

    ds – such a good point about Gordimer and Murdoch. It’s clear that Gordimer’s life experience shaped her writing and Murdoch didn’t have the same environment. Makes me wonder about Doris Lessing, who seems to have covered both areas…

    Litlove – What is your favorite Romain Gary? I’m enjoying his work so much, he^’s just incredible.

  9. verbivore

    Lilian and Bikkuri – Hollywood has done lots of similar damage, I suspect, but I didn’t realize Shirley Temple ever played Heidi! Makes perfect sense now that I think about it.

    Polyreader – How funny about the Japanese cartoon, I think I have seen that, I have some vague memory of it…but it certainly didn’t sink in enough to erase my image of blonde Heidi…

    Dorothy – I know! But I’ve never read Dox Quixote (or atleast not all of it) and I kept thinking that so much of what Goldman was trying to do was lost on me. Perhaps they would be a fun tandem read some day.

  10. Silvia

    Heidi is in our curriculum as a free reading for the children when they are fairly young, as a read aloud or independent if they are at that level. We in Spain had a TV cartoon series on Heidi, and to me she was a girl with short black hair. I can’t wait to read books like that with my daughters.

  11. Silvia

    The waiting years is not in my library, though I added it to my Amazon cart. But this one the library has two copies and no requests…………yes, that means I can get it and renew it to give me time to read it. Sad thing I live in Texas and can’t find many books in Spanish.
    I’ve read Don Quijote de la Mancha, maybe that will help me.

  12. onesimus (Tim)

    I don’t know how you do it.
    I was once an avid reader but now find it difficult to maintain enough interest to complete a book. It’s a problem I’m trying to overcome – but my current attempt is not looking promising.

  13. verbivore

    Silvia – Thanks for the comments. I’ll be curious to see what you think of The Waiting Years and The Divine Husband if you get a chance to read them.

    Tim – Good luck! I’ve had spots where books and I just don’t really get along, luckily they’ve all been shortlived.

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